Our Promise, Our Obligation

It is the 4th of July. It is a beautiful, warm, sunny day and we will do one traditional thing – barbecue some burgers and hot dogs. Otherwise, the holiday doesn’t have much meaning this year. I’m not taking much pride in being American, sad to say.

I am a baby boomer – slipped in under the wire, being born in 1959. I don’t know who decides these things, who defines the generations, but I meet the criteria. As a product of that time, I believed in American exceptionalism. The lessons learned at school, and the broader culture, taught me that this country was special, born of an idea that we were all created equal, and we were free in ways other citizens in other countries were not. I was born into the Cold War – people in the Soviet Union could not criticize their government without fear of imprisonment, they did not enjoy the riches and abundance of the free market, they weren’t allowed to practice religion (I was especially aware of this as a Jew) among many other rights. But, not only that, I thought we were better even than England where people were born into a class and couldn’t rise above it. When America won gold at the Olympic games, my heart swelled with pride when our national anthem played. I believed we were the good guys.

I came to understand that we weren’t always the good guys in foreign policy. We sometimes supported regimes that were repressive or corrupt because we thought it was in our economic interests. As I became more educated and experienced in the world, I didn’t dismiss these instances, but I accepted that there were some limits to our choices; our country existed in a real world with bad actors. I still had faith, though, with effective leadership and if our values informed our policies, we could be a force for good.

As I grew up, and became more educated about our history, I came to understand that we weren’t quite as exceptional as I thought. I still believed in the essential values that were our foundation, freedom and equal opportunity, but I realized that we had not fulfilled those promises. Race riots and the women’s movement made me aware that we didn’t all have equal opportunity. When the founding fathers wrote the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution, they used the term ‘men’ purposefully. We needed to expand the concept. We had work to do to make that a reality. But, I accepted that this was something that could be achieved through new laws and improved education. I believed that the majority of Americans wanted to realize that promise.

Today my faith is shaken. It seems that a powerful portion of the American people don’t share my understanding of the foundational values that I thought inform our institutions. I thought freedom meant that people could worship as they chose, if it wasn’t infringing on others or violating laws, but that religion was not endorsed by the government. Increasingly it seems that our Supreme Court has thrown that idea by the wayside. A coach, an employee of a public school system, can lead his team in Christian prayer in the middle of the football field. A Christian concept of when life begins dictates a woman’s right to reproductive choice. The right to bear arms outweighs sensible limitations. If polls are to be believed, though, the majority of Americans don’t agree with these policies. So, where does that leave us?

The very idea of democracy, that the will of the majority of people determines the government’s course of action, is being thwarted. Everything I learned, that we have a “government of the people, by the people and for the people,” is at risk. I just re-read the Gettysburg Address, from which the phrase I quoted above derives, and I remind myself not to give up. I highly recommend refreshing your memory by reading it (here).

These ideals are worth fighting for; all is not lost. These Supreme Court decisions need not be the final word. Congress can act. State legislatures can act. Governors make a difference. Local school boards are relevant. We need to be vigilant, and we need to vote – in primaries and in November. Perhaps this holiday, this 4th of July, can help to remind us of our promise and obligation.

Okay, I’m feeling better about the holiday. I hope you are too.

Patriotism

All through elementary school we began our day by reciting the pledge of allegiance. I recall standing, facing the flag, hand over my heart, earnestly saying the words with my classmates.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America,

And to the Republic for which it stands,

One nation, under God, indivisible,

With liberty and justice for all.”

I said those words with pride. As I got older, it became a rote exercise. By the time I was in high school, in the early 1970s, it was hard to hear the words over the general din in homeroom.

The process of it losing my attention, and apparently my classmates’, too, might have been a function of our age. Or it may have reflected something else – a change in our country as a whole.

Two things made me think about this. First was the controversy over Megan Rapinoe, the women’s soccer player who got called out by President Trump for not singing the national anthem. The second thing is that the 4th of July is upon us, a good time to reflect on patriotism.

Over the years a lot of athletes have stirred controversy by their behavior during the national anthem. The first roiling I recall was when John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their gloved fists in Black Power salutes at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. That touched off a firestorm. I was only 8 at the time, but I remember being upset by it. I think what disturbed me most was that it was detracting from the competition. I loved the Olympics, I loved it when Americans won an event, and I felt pride hearing our anthem played in the stadium. It reinforced that we were the good guys – and it was the Cold War, after all. I didn’t want Carlos and Smith to upset the applecart.

But, even at 8 years of age, I stopped to think about why they were doing it. They were making a statement and I felt it was important to try to understand it. They were calling attention to the fact that Black Americans were not being treated equally at home. It was hard to deny that truth. The athletes felt they had to use their platform literally and figuratively. They paid for their actions – they were kicked out of the Olympic Village and banned from the rest of the games. They also received death threats. One can only imagine what might have happened if this occurred in the age of the 24/7 news cycle and social media frenzies.

The idea that our country was falling short of its foundational values became more evident to me as the years rolled on. The Vietnam War and Watergate took their toll on my faith; they were stains on our nation’s history.

I don’t want to suggest that I didn’t feel pride in being an American – I did and do. But it is tempered by an awareness that we haven’t always met our own standards. We need people like Megan Rapinoe and Colin Kaepernick to keep us accountable. They raise legitimate issues. We can disagree with them. We can think that they are wrong. But they should be seen and heard.

I came to my own conclusion about the pledge of allegiance. When I became a school board member in 1997, I took an oath of office. It was simple and said the following:

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of New York, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of office of school board member of the Guilderland Central School District according to the best of my ability.”

I recited and signed that statement with honor and seriousness of purpose. I thought about my responsibility to the U.S. and New York State Constitutions, and to the students and members of my school community. I kept that in the forefront of my mind during the nine years I served. But, I stopped saying the pledge of allegiance.

It was our practice, and I believe it is the custom of most school boards, to begin meetings with the pledge. I stood up out of respect for my colleagues and the audience, but I didn’t put my hand over my heart, and I didn’t repeat the words. I had two reasons. First, I felt uncomfortable pledging allegiance to the flag. The flag is a symbol. I wouldn’t desecrate it, but I didn’t want to take an oath to it. I think it is beautiful waving against a clear blue sky, but my allegiance isn’t to the flag itself. If the pledge only said, “I pledge allegiance to the United States of America,” that would be fine. I recognize the value of symbols, but we shouldn’t confuse a representation with the actual thing that we venerate. Sometimes I think the flag itself becomes more important than the values it represents.

My second objection was the phrase “under God,” which was added in 1954. I’m not an atheist exactly, I’ll call myself a doubter. Given that I grew up believing that one of the great pillars of our country was the separation of church and state, I don’t think those words belong. So, I simply stopped reciting it.

Funny thing is that for all the years that I didn’t say the pledge, no one noticed! The meetings were televised locally. We were covered by a local reporter. No one ever asked. I wasn’t interested in calling attention to myself, so I didn’t make a point of it. I made a personal choice. I wonder if it had been noticed, if it would have become a “thing.”

I wish people wouldn’t get so angry when celebrities or regular people make these kinds of gestures. Why can’t they be noted, and then people make their own determination as to whether they agree or not. If you don’t like Megan Rapinoe because of her behavior or her values, that’s fine. But we don’t need the vitriol – how did we get to death threats so quickly? We have enough real problems to deal with, we don’t need to dwell on whether someone didn’t sing or if they knelt during the national anthem.

As we celebrate the 4th of July, I hope we think about the values that are the foundation of this country as expressed in that pledge: liberty and justice for all. These are still aspirational goals that I readily embrace and work towards achieving. We can and should enjoy the symbols: our majestic flag, the fireworks, the patriotic music, the hot dogs and beer. But let’s keep our eyes on the prize.

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A house in my neighborhood – ready to celebrate the Fourth of July